Urdu is Pakistan’s national language, at least that’s what the Article 251 (1) of the 1973 Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan says. The article is reproduced here, verbatim: ‘The national language of Pakistan is Urdu, and arrangements shall be made for its being used for official and other purposes within fifteen years from the commencing day.’ Nowadays some quarters are running a campaign that aims at officially giving the status of national language to all Pakistani languages (the ones previously known as ‘regional’ or ‘provincial’ languages which are now officially called ‘Pakistani languages’), but one feels that until a constitutional amendment is made to the effect, Urdu is the sole national language of Pakistan. So let’s have a look at some of the government institutions working for the promotion of Urdu.

• Majlis-i-Taraqqi-i-Adab, Lahore: Established in May 1950 by the Punjab government with a view to translate great western works into Urdu, it was initially named ‘Majlis-i-Tarjuma’. In 1958, the government renamed it and asked it to publish ‘classical literature’ and ‘high-quality literature’ along with translations. Imtiaz Ali Taj was its first director. So far, it has published about 500 books. It also publishes a journal named Saheefa. Prof Dr Tehseen Firaqi is its director general and new books are being published regularly. After the death of Shahzad Ahmed, the former director general, the Majlis’s working suffered, but in recent years, after the arrival of Dr Firaqi, it has been functioning quite well.

• Urdu Dictionary Board, Karachi: The federal government established the board in June 1958 and entrusted it with the task of promoting Urdu language and literature in addition to compiling and publishing Urdu’s most comprehensive dictionary on the lines of Greater Oxford English Dictionary (which now has 20 volumes, the first edition had 12). Later, the board was renamed and compiling the dictionary was made its only task. It has published a 22-volume Urdu dictionary and about 20 books. It used to publish quarterly Urdu nama which ceased publication in 1976. Moulvi Abdul Haq was board’s first chief editor. The board has been working without a regular chief editor for too long now and it seems very unlikely that the once-planned revision of the dictionary and publishing of its shorter versions will ever take place.

• Urdu Science Board, Lahore: The federal government, in May 1962, established Markazi Urdu Board with three objectives: promoting Urdu, publishing books in Urdu on science and technology so that the language is adopted as medium of instruction for higher education and to co-ordinate with other institutions created for the promotion of Urdu. Later, it was renamed as Urdu Science Board (USB) and now has three branches, one each in Hyderabad, Peshawar and Quetta. The USB has published a large number of books and a comprehensive science encyclopaedia in Urdu. But in recent years it has not been much active.

• Muqtadira Qaumi Zaban, Islamabad: The institution created in October 1979 in accordance with the Article 251 (1) of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan to prepare Urdu for the adoption as official language was, unfortunately and indiscreetly, renamed as Idara-i-Farogh-i-Qaumi Zaban (IFQZ) a few years ago. It was previously called the National Language Authority (NLA), now it is just an institution for the promotion of Urdu, just like many other institutions that are engaged in publishing books.

The institution formerly known as the NLA had worked a lot for making Urdu the official language and (since the 1973 Constitution says that Urdu should become the official language of the country within 15 years) in 1988, the NLA asked the government to implement it. The NLA believed that the national language was fully capable of replacing the English language. But the government dragged its feet. This writer once requested Prof Fateh Muhammad Malik, the former NLA chairman, to explain the reason behind the non-compliance of the Article 251 of the Constitution. He was kind enough to answer the loaded question and his short and sweet reply was “the lack of political will”.

The NLA (now IFQZ) has published a large number of books, but its invaluable contribution is the publication of books related to ‘daftari’ or ‘sarkari zaban’ (official language) and glossaries of technical terms. It also publishes a monthly named Akhbar-i-Urdu. The monthly was intended for the coinage of technical terms in Urdu, encouraging and popularising official correspondence in Urdu and enunciating the technical aspects of the Urdu language.

A few years ago, however, the character and spirit of Akhbar-i-Urdu changed altogether and it began publishing articles on Urdu literature, some of which were described by some scholars as ‘notes for the students of BA’. The books published, too, were not related to the technical aspects of language or its use, but were mostly dissertations on literature written by M Phil students. What one must appreciate, however, is the launch of a new journal by IFQZ. Titled Ilm-o-fun, the new journal in its two issues so far published has tried to concentrate on the technical and linguistic aspects rather than literary criticism.

Many believe that the change of nomenclature, from the NLA to IFQZ, is a subtle and symbolic move to make it clear that now no ‘authority’ exists to implement Urdu as official or national language and the former ‘Authority’ is now merely a publishing house.

Previously great scholars and researchers of Urdu headed the NLA. These scholars loved Urdu. But at the IFQZ now bureaucracy reigns which prefers English (though their proficiency in English is debatable). The message from the bureaucracy is clear: forget that Urdu would ever truly become the national language or official language of Pakistan. Also, forget the Constitution, especially Article 251.

All one can say is that the government should look into the matters of these institutions and appoint scholars to head them, as was done in the past.

Luckily, the government took the right decision by appointing a scholar like Prof Dr Muhammad Qasim Bughio as the chairman of Pakistan Academy of Letters, replacing the ‘babus’. We hope the UDB will soon get a full-time chief editor and the IFQZ will again be made an ‘authority’. Iqbal Academy, Lahore, is also in shambles. Urdu Science Board, too, needs to be reactivated. And we do hope that Urdu will soon become the official language, so that when 90 per cent of the common citizens of Pakistan go to some office or bank they are not baffled by some forms, 99 per cent of which are in English (with innumerable and laughable grammatical errors).